Julia Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Canadian software engineer, writer, and speaker. Born and raised Toronto, she organizes communities focused on embracing empathy, diversity, inclusion, mental health, and storytelling. She leads an open source project called if me, a mental health app for people to share their experiences with loved ones and trusted peers.
Julia has been a part of organizations like the University of Waterloo Women in Computer Science Undergraduate Committee, Write/Speak/Code, and Prompt, a community of mental health speakers in tech. She has written for Model View Culture, AJ+, and Shameless Magazine. She has spoken at Open Source Bridge, the Tech Inclusion Conference, and DevTO’s International Women’s Day Event.
Inspired by her story and work in the mental health field, I was excited to have the opportunity to interview her.
What was your inspiration to begin your advocacy work?
My biggest inspiration for my advocacy work is my mother. She has fought for everything for her family her whole life. My parents were refugees from Vietnam who came to Canada with absolutely nothing.
My childhood was chaotic - to say the least. There are things that still traumatize me today. My mother worked multiple jobs to help get my father through a second degree since his first degree, in engineering, didn’t cut it in Canada. My parents struggled with mental health behind closed doors. They split up repeatedly until it was permanent, and my mom raised us on her own. My younger brother has autism, he’s non-verbal and on the severe end of the spectrum. When my brother was diagnosed, she quit work to take care of him full-time. We lived in low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto.
From government services to education, she has fought for everything for him. Growing up, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I do now. She spent countless hours on the phone, writing letters, and lobbying for better rights for him and other autistic children from low-income immigrant families.
When I started dealing with the mental health system, in my early teens, she fought for everything for me. Like my brother’s therapy services, our family couldn’t afford the therapy and counselling I needed for my mental illness.
She taught my sister and I to be strong, independent women. Even though we couldn’t afford to nurture our talents and interests, she always pulled through and gave us the opportunity to get involved in music, dance, visual arts, and sports.
My mother continues to inspire me to persevere through tough times, think and act independently, and show compassion and empathy for yourself and others.
Do you or a loved one live with mental health? How has it impacted your work as an advocate?
I’m diagnosed with OCD, anxiety, and depression. Mental illness affects me everyday. Dealing with it as a student and a software engineer in the industry has been difficult. I have a history of panic attacks, medication abuse, self-harm, and suicide attempts.
I was diagnosed in a traumatic way when I was 15 - I was arrested and involuntarily placed into an adolescent psychiatric ward. I was in and out of therapy and harming myself behind closed doors. My mother warned me not to talk about it other people, because she was afraid I would be judged unfairly. We couldn’t even talk about it with relatives outside our immediate family. In many immigrant and communities of colour, mental illness is a huge taboo.
In high school, I did a good job at pretending I was the model minority student. I thought by drowning myself in school work and extracurriculars, I could be the best version of myself and somehow my mental illnesses would disappear in the background.
I got a huge reality check when I started university, where I studied computer science. I failed math and computer science courses in my first semester. But I hid this from everyone. I lied to friends, classmates, and family about it and maintained I was doing well. I didn’t reach out for help from professors. I didn’t utilize my university’s mental health services. I was a ticking time bomb.
After various meltdowns and hospitalizations, I came out with my mental illness to everyone. I wrote blogs about it. I even published an article for Model View Culture about the pressures of success in computer science programs and its effects on mental health. During that same period, I started working on if me as a personal project.
I started utilizing the mental health services on campus and seeking academic accommodations for my issues. For the first time in my life, I had to deal with advocating for myself. The mental health system is woefully broken, and it comes to no surprise that campuses face this problem. They are underfunded, understaffed - not enough university staff are educated on mental health.
After “coming out” with mental illness, people around me started opening up more. I can’t tell you the number of emails and private messages I get from people sharing their stories with me. Although I continue to battle my demons, talking about it through speeches, talks, and published articles helped me to embrace my most authentic self.
You founded if me as a communication tool that encourages people to share their personal stories with trusted allies. Why is it important to have trusted allies?
This is something I struggled with my whole life. I didn’t feel safe to talk about my issues with people I grew up with because of the cultural stigmas. Because I didn’t talk about it with people I trusted, it made dealing with mental illness more difficult.
As a teen, therapy and counselling was extremely difficult. I didn’t trust the people I talked to. I saw them as authoritative figures that sided with my mother. They also couldn’t relate to the struggles I had being a daughter of immigrant parents, Southeast Asian, living in poverty, and struggling silently with rampant abuse. I also didn’t take treatment as seriously as I should’ve. I saw it as a way to punish and demean me.
It wasn’t until university, when I was living on my own, did I realize that I needed to advocate for myself in other to treat my mental health. Advocating for yourself includes finding support from people you trust.
Treating your mental health requires a holistic approach. Going to therapy and taking meds isn’t the only way to treat it. Mental health is part of being human, and therefore we should be talking about it.
We live in a society where we aren’t rewarded for showing vulnerability and addressing depression, anxiety, burnout, and failure. Because of this, it’s harder for us to advocate for our own mental health.
Being open about mental health doesn’t necessarily mean getting up on stage and giving a talk about it. It means being able to find comfort and support from those your trust - family, friends, and beyond. If me is a mental health communication app that allows users to share each moment with their trusted allies. Together we can support each other and help each other find strategies to move forward.
Can you define the term open source and how crucial it was to offer if me as an open source project?
Open source software refers to software whose source code is made publicly available under a licence with specific terms. The goal of open source is to create software in an open and collaborative manner. Many open source software is free. If me is both free and open source.
Having experienced the economic and cultural barriers of access, I firmly believe that mental health should be open and accessible to everyone. Mental health is something we all have to deal with, which is why it should be approached in a collaborative way.
If me is built and maintained by volunteers of many different backgrounds and skill sets. Open source software communities are notorious for being exclusive - excluding beginners, non-technical people, women, and people of colour. As an inexperienced open source contributor who felt very intimidated by certain communities, it was hard establishing if me as an open source project. The majority of if me contributors have been beginner developers from coding schools and universities who are care deeply about mental health. We’ve also collaborated with many non-technical people, including mental health professionals and activists.
What success have you seen with if me?
Success has been incremental. I started working on the project in 2014. I've been maintaining it and manager contributors while being a university student and working as an intern. It’s been hard dealing with some many things on top of mental illness while wanting if me to succeed as much as it can.
We all want that for the projects we are passionate about. We want them to progress quickly, gain traction, and reach as many people as possible. Sometimes we forget that it’s okay to progress at your own pace and on your own terms.
This thinking is so important when it comes to treating mental health. Taking the time to develop an inclusive community of contributors can feel empowered to contribute to has been the most important goal of if me. We want our users to feel empowered to be their authentic selves and get the support deserve from their loved ones, so it’s just as important that the people building the project feel that way too. Community is the most important thing we can build.
We build an inclusive contributor community by writing extensive documentation, encouraging contributors, although all remote, to collaborate with one another, and being accommodating of people’s busy schedules.
This year we’ve done more promotion to get people using the app and providing their feedback, which has been incredibly helpful. In the past, I felt really intimidated to promote the app and get people using it. I didn’t want to have to deal with users finding bugs or criticizing their experience with it. I didn’t want to deal with people who weren’t as excited about the project as I was. But you have to deal with all these discouraging things if you want your project to reach new people and get better.
How can people help support if me?
By signing up for an account with the app and inviting your loved ones to use it with you! You can provide your feedback, including your suggestions on what we should add to the app. If you want to contribute as a developer or designer, please check out our Github page.
All of our contributors, whether non-technical or technical, communicate through Slack. It’s important that everyone can communicate with one another, despite working on different areas of the project.
What if any advice for any Asian woman of color living with or supporting someone with mental health issues?
You are not alone. You are deserving of love, respect, and compassion. The community you are a part of may not understand how “normal” mental health is, but they are capable of being educated and having meaningful conversations about it. But remember, that you aren’t responsible for their education. Take care of yourself first, hold onto the people who will support you, and be vulnerable with them. When you can, pay it forward - reach out to someone when they are in need and be empathetic ear they deserve.
As an Asian woman, we are stereotyped to be submissive, monolithic model minorities who do not question the status quo. We are more than that. We are diverse. We are powerful. We have faced all kinds of adversities to get where we are, and we have the power to build communities where we can support those like us in need. Share resources and tips for therapy, counselling, dealing with medication, and talking about it to your family and friends.
Everyone should be prioritizing their emotional intelligence. Mental health is part of being human, and whether we have a diagnosed illness or not, we are always in need of help. Don’t be a bystander when someone in your life is suffering. Don’t feel like it’s “none of your business” to intervene and offer support.
Lastly, it’s okay to not feel okay. It’s okay to feel pain, to want to curl up into a ball and disappear. Life is messy, then you die. But beautiful things can happen in between and even after. You are alive and that means a lot.
For more information or to sign up, visit if-me.org.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.